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The Problematic Presentation of Gender in Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning

TRIGGER WARNINGS for discussion of ciscentricity, allocentricity, intersexism, and gender essentialism, and for quoted anti-trans and anti-intersex slurs apply to the following essay, as well as SPOILER WARNINGS.

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Too Like the Lightning has been feted and critically acclaimed, and now nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel. I read it back when it first came out, after hearing about how well it supposedly handled queerness, and especially gender in the context of queerness, from a number of people whose opinions on the topic I usually respect; I did not agree with these assessments. I’ve been asked a number of times to discuss more fully my issues with the presentation of gender in the novel, so, with the Hugo Awards now open for voting, it seems like this might be the moment, to let voters see what this particular genderqueer person thought of the presentation of gender in the book. For context, I’m a bisexual nonbinary person and my pronoun is they.

It’s worth establishing some baseline elements. Supposedly, the world of Too Like The Lightning is a post-gender world; “gender, we were supposed to be past that too”1 the narrator says of the world. This is somewhat undermined by the way other characters occasionally make reference to biological sex2, and by the way sex is referred to as being “neutered egalitarian copulation” when done outside of the gender binary3. This is also evident in titles; the frontispiece of the book references “His Majesty Isabel Carlos II of Spain”4, and another character is given the title “Princess”5. We can therefore see that this supposed post-gender world is no such thing, but that gender is apparently not something normally discussed – Mycroft, the narrator, says to the reader that “you must forgive my ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s, my ‘he’s and ‘she’s”6 on the very first page of actual prose we encounter, as opposed to what appears to be the societal norm of using the gender-neutral pronoun ‘they’.

Mycroft is, then, instantly established as breaking the societal norms by their use of gendered pronouns; indeed, on multiple occasions, Mycroft directly addresses the reader on the matter of using them, and tends to justify it in the most distressingly binarist and allocentric of terms, very early in the text, for instance saying that gendered pronouns “remind you [that is, the putative future reader] of their sexes” and that “gendered language was every bit as sensual to our predecessors [that is, us, the reader] as it is to us”, despite the putative reader Mycroft addresses protesting that their “distress is at the strangeness of applying ‘he’ and ‘she’ to thy 2450s, where they have no place”7. Indeed, Mycroft states that the singular they is the product a “prudish” era, and a “neutered”7 (in this case, meaning unsexual, desexualised) pronoun. Another character states that “sex is in everything… If you don’t believe that, you need to get laid”8; thus we see binarism and allocentricity as apparently common beliefs.

The text, however, cannot support the weight of Mycroft’s reasoning in the way it uses gender; most egregiously, in the fact that the Mukta, the prototype of a fleet of vehicles that is now planetwide, is gendered as female9, and in the gendering of a hypothetical person used in a simile10. Beyond that, however, children are gendered; rather than referring to Bridger as a child, Mycroft refers to them as a boy11. There’s also the repeated turn of phrase, “a day on which men had honoured their Creator in ages past”12; none of these examples can be seen to be referencing sex, except that of Bridger, and if that’s meant to be sexual, that’s a strange comment on Mycroft and Palmer both.

The exceptional case in which Mycroft as narrator does, however, use ‘they’ is of characters whose gender they are unable to guess; particularly of Utopians, because of their manner of dress13. Mycroft also briefly uses they of Eureka, whose status as a set-set means they’ve never been exposed to the outside world, and whose nerves are all rewired as input modes; but very rapidly, Mycroft in narration switches to using she, for no clear reason14.

The most interesting, and problematic, case of how Mycroft refers to a character in this particular book is the case of Dominic Seneschal, who presents as aggressively male, although is explicitly described as having “breasts beneath that taut waistcoat, that the thighs and pelvis which the coat’s high cut displays are very much a woman’s”15; Mycroft refers to them as “the woman… is the boldest and most masculine of men”16, and uses the pronoun he for them throughout the text. So far, this would seem to simply be Mycroft following the gender preferences of the character; however, Mycroft puts the term “she-man”17 into the mouth of the putative reader about Dominic. If the term is unfamiliar to you, perhaps a close analogue, ‘shemale’, might not be; it is a slur against trans women, which has no place without serious critique of the term going on around it and the user being very explicitly called out for its use18.

The way Mycroft’s gendering works is consistently unclear; the narration suggests that Cousins should always be pronouned with she because of their caring role, “maternal heart[s]” and “flowing robes”19. Carlyle, however, because of genitalia, is referred to as he, something which you’ll note does not constrain the way Mycroft refers to characters such as Dominic; there’s a confusion of whether genitalia or role plays the centre of how Mycroft chooses pronouns, perhaps most pronounced when Mycroft genders Chagatai as female:

With Chagatai, however, your guess [that is, the guess of the putative future reader as to why Mycroft genders Chagatai female] is wrong. It is not her job which makes me give her the feminine pronoun, despite her testicles and chromosomes. I saw her once when someone threatened her little nephew, and the primal savagery with which those thick hands shattered the offender was unmistakably that legendary strength which lionesses, she-wolves, she-bats, she-doves, and all other ‘she’s obtain when motherhood berserks them. That strength wins her ‘she’.20

The way that passage assigns gender to Chagatai is based on the stereotypical image of the mother, something that follows for a lot of the way characters gendered as female are portrayed.

This is a consistent problem with the way Mycroft approaches femininity. The first time this appears is in a reference to “practiced femininity”21, something which ought to have no meaning in this supposedly post-gender world. However, this “practiced femininity” is apparently incredibly and inherently sexual, and makes others think of sex, something against which Mycroft states they have no defence. A later discussion of a different character talks about a “display of ‘wife'”22; this is part of a series of pages describing a conversation with Danaë, who is described as acting and appearing in incredibly gendered ways, and builds up to “the husband wrenching the kimono back to bare the honey-wet vagina”23. This section is apparently why Mycroft feels they have to gender all the characters in the narration; because of the way Danaë uses a particular idea of femininity as a weapon.

Now, so far, almost all discussion has been about how Palmer’s choice of narrator has gendered characters, albeit with one exception noted above2. But the problem extends beyond Mycroft. Two chapters are narrated by another character, Martin Guildbreaker, who uses they as the pronoun of choice in them24; however, in discussing the vital statistics of interviewees in their chapters, Martin marks gender in one case (a character Mycroft has not encountered), but not in the other (a character Mycroft has gendered as male)25. A later example is the way two characters gender Carlyle Foster, gendered by Mycroft as male, as female in a discussion, until Carlyle is mentioned as having a penis, at which point both characters switch to using the pronoun ‘they’26; if the point of the pronoun were the transgressive reference to sex and gender, surely it should be consistent or change to he?

Perhaps the strangest example is that of the animated toy soldiers brought to life. They are brought to life with “attitudes of hundreds of years ago when those ancient toy soldiers were made; one of those attitudes Mycroft explicitly mentions in this description is “They use ‘he’ and ‘she'”27. However, in the actual quoted dialogue of the toy soldiers, the only pronoun we ever hear them use is they28; however, they are gendered by other characters, as Thisbe refers to the Major as “he”29, strangely.

The single most problematic portrayal in this book is one that reveals issues with the whole society of Too Like The Lightning, and that spills over and becomes worse in the sequel, Seven Surrenders, revolving around Sniper. In the first book, Sniper is pronouned as he, but Sniper is “tantalisingly androgynous” and “Sniper’s publicity team has worked so hard to keep the public from learning the androgyne’s true sex”30. Indeed, the genital configuration of Sniper is such a mystery to the public that it is something to be discovered by the media31, and a sibling of Sniper’s refers to something being “a public mystery to rival what’s in Cardie’s [that is, Sniper’s] pants”32. Indeed, dolls are made of Sniper for people to play with, including as sex toys; these final category of dolls come as “fully anatomical Sniper-XX and Sniper-XY models”33, suggesting that either Palmer or the world, or both, believe that chromosomes only come in these configurations, and define an exclusively binary set of genitalia, neither assertion of which is true. All this revolves around a character who is, in book two, revealed to be intersex; at this point the narration ceases to use the pronoun he and switches to the pronoun it to refer to Sniper34. If you are unaware, it as a pronoun refers to objects and sometimes animals; but people, adults, are not generally referred to as it, and it is incredibly offensive to almost all intersex people to pronoun them as it, with the exception of those few who reclaim it as their own pronoun, knowing how controversial it is.

All of these choices reflect worldbuilding choices Ada Palmer made, and arguably, they could be justified as being part of the world Palmer chose to build. But there are no constraints on Palmer’s choice of worldbuilding; she could have, instead, built a truly genderless world. She could have built a world where Sniper’s being intersex, Carlyle’s penis and Dominic’s gender identity have no relevance whatsoever; where there truly is not gender or sex differentiation in society, only biologically. Instead she built one which claims to have this while significantly undercutting it; that’s an authorial choice, and one that led to her book punching me in the face35 repeatedly. Insofar as it is related to her choice of narrator in Mycroft, there are a number of other characters who could relate the story; but Palmer chose to give us Mycroft, who forces gendering on us because it’s part of an Enlightenment style they adopt. However, it is notable that the Oxford English Dictionary, in talking about the usage of “they”, makes reference to historical use of the singular they in the Sixteenth Century; and one of the most prominent writers in English of the period, Jane Austen, used the singular they across her body of writing36. The style Palmer is having Mycroft emulate has no constraint against the use of the singular they.

In sum, this book has severe issues with ciscentrism, allocentrism, intersexism, and gender binarism and essentialism. Palmer cannot justify this by saying her hand was forced; she chose this set-up for the book, she chose how to present gender, she chose to have other characters reinforce Mycroft’s assertions about sex and gender, and she chose the whole frame in which the discussion in the book takes place. Too Like The Lightning isn’t progressive or doing interesting things with gender: it is painful, regressive, and I’m going to be ranking it below No Award in the Hugo voting. You, of course, should do as your conscience dictates.

Edited to add links to some others’ interesting, differing opinions on the approach to gender in Too Like the Lightning:

Yoon Ha Lee

Cheryl Morgan

Please note all page numbers refer to the pagination of the 2016 first printing first edition hardback published by Tor Books. Many thanks to my paid sensitivity reader for this essay, who asked to remain anonymous.
1. Page 337
2. Eg Thisbe questioning Mycroft on Mycroft using male pronouns in conversation about a character with breasts, page 248
3. Page 322
4. Page 5, frontispiece in the style of an Enlightenment-period printed book
5. Page 48
6. Page 13
7. All references to page 27. Note also that “neutered” is a term many intersex and trans people regard as a slur, per this poll.
8. Page 331
9. Page 35
10. Page 43
11. Page 24
12. First encountered on page 14, but repeated multiple times through the book, always using ‘men’
13. Page 361, although note that earlier Mycroft has gendered Utopians based on an unknown and unclear metric, pp156-7
14. Page 57-8
15. Page 89
16. Page 90
17. Page 94
18. See Wiki for more on the term ‘Shemale’
19. Page 70; see also page 269, where Cousins’ wraps are referred to as “dresslike” and feminine – although this femininity seems to derive as much from them being worn by Cousins as anything else, with a certain circularity
20. Page 237
21. Page 30
22. Page 48
23. Page 50
24. Page 163-174, 339-349
25. Martin describes Tsuneo Sugiyama as female on page 165 in giving their vital statistics, whereas their recitation of the vital statistics of Cato Weeksbooth does not give a sex or gender
26. Page 368-9
27. Page 66
28. See for instance the dialogue of the soldiers on page 19, where they consistently use they
29. Page 26
30. Both page 138
31. Page 143
32. Page 299
33. Page 139
34. This happens on page 98-9 of Seven Surrenders, according to Marissa Lingen, who discussed the presentation a little more here
35. For an explanation of the term “punching in the face”, see this blog post by Ann Leckie
36. The Oxford Dictionary, and specific references to the singular they in Jane Austen’s corpus

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Queering The Genre: Laura Lam (With Giveaway!)

Laura Lam first crossed my radar when her debut novel, Pantomime, came out in 2013; notable for being a YA novel with an intersex bisexual protagonist, I was not a fan. Since then, the publisher, Strange Chemistry, has gone under, leaving a number of horror-stories in their wake about author treatment and editorial standards; but Pan MacMillan picked up the Micah Grey trilogy and republished the first two books last year, with Masquerade, the last book, out for the first time ever this week!

SPOILERS follow for the Micah Grey trilogy

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The first two books of the trilogy (I have my copy of Masquerade, of course, but haven’t read it yet!) follow Micah Grey as he tries to escape from his noble family, first by joining a circus (in Pantomime, which also recaps his life to the point of running away, and why he did so) and then as part of a magic show (in Shadowplay, which draws on some of the themes of Pantomime and fleshes out Micah’s past). Micah is an intersex person who usually identifies as a man and uses “he/him” profiles; due to the prejudices of his society, he is in the closet, and when he comes out to some of the other key characters, there are a variety of reactions. Some are, of course, painful queerphobic rejections, which are rather distressing to read but are portrayed without much sympathy for the person rejecting Micah; but there are also reactions which are completely accepting of Micah, and those are portrayed well and beautifully. Similarly, bisexuality seems to be largely a fact of life in the circles Micah moves in; he has some internalised queerphobia from his noble upbringing, but there doesn’t seem to be any biphobia or homophobia amongst the characters we meet in his adult life.

Laura Lam has since also gone on to write some fascinating near-future science fiction, in the Pacifica series; the first of these, False Hearts, came out last year, with Shattered Minds to follow in May.

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False Hearts is one of the best books about an investigation into a crime involving a cult in a near-future setting to have come out in the last year (there were enough to say that, yes); it’s a fun fast-paced and thoughtful story that really digs into some cyberpunk ideas and stylings, including the use of neurohacking. But it’s mentioned here because the protagonist is queer, very openly and happily bisexual, in a society where sexuality doesn’t seem to be an axis of oppression; this is a book that is very willing to engage with a variety of sexualities and, indeed, gender identities, although that latter category is far less foregrounded. The semi-sequel (set in the same world, but with different characters), Shattered Minds, looks set to be equally exciting!

Finally, as mentioned yesterday, Laura Lam is one of the essayists included in the Nasty Women collection, which also features a variety of takes on feminism – including some explicitly about queerness!

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But now that I’ve told you about why you should be reading Laura Lam’s work, here’s a chance to win one! I have TWO copies of the new paperback edition of Pantomime to give away, anywhere in the world; see the link  below to enter! This giveaway will be open until 00:00 GMT on March 16th!

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The Bone Palace by Amanda Downum (Part 2)

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Yesterday, I reviewed The Bone Palace, discussing some of the queer representation in the novel but only briefly touching on the trans matters covered; today, I want to engage specifically with that topic, in the context of Cheryl Morgan’s discussion of the book.

Her piece focuses on the character of Savedra, the transgendered consort of the prince. Throughout the book, Savedra is gendered and presents as female, and the narrator, like the cast, uses the pronoun “she” of her; she is presented as a mistress of the prince who can never marry him because they could not have children. So far, one would think, so good; Morgan’s objections to the book start here, though. In a world of magic, there appears to be no surgery to make Savedra’s “treacherous” (a word she uses) body match her self-image; while problematic on one level, a magical cure for transsexuality is also problematic, erasing the huge, every-day struggles of people in the real world. Compassion might argue for erasing those in the novel but making transsexuality look “easy” is as much a lie as making it look impossible; Savedra is a woman, and she is seen putting effort into her appearance on a regular basis.

Savedra is also a femme woman. This isn’t the only image of women presented in the novel; Isyllt is relatively unfeminine, although she does have a taste for dresses and jewelry, while Ashlin, the queen and a friend of Savedra from the start of the book, is a soldier through and through, and indeed the most competent fighter in the novel. The Bone Palace does see Savedra suffer for her femininity at times; during the Ball, she struggles with her dress during an assassination attempt; but then earlier in the novel, she kills an assassin attempting to kill the royal couple, demonstrating clear physical capabilities. This isn’t the awful stereotype of a femme trans woman unable to fight for fear of breaking her nails, but rather an image of a trans woman who is still very capable.

Morgan’s biggest problems with Downum’s book fall largely out of two specific events. In each case, I think The Bone Palace is doing something very different to what she believes it is. The first is a piece of dialogue described by Morgan as follows:

Both women make a point of stating that they don’t normally go for girls. From Savedra’s point of view this has some legitimacy because Ashlin is a very macho woman. But from Ashlin’s point of view the statement can only be seen as implying that she sees Savedra as male.

The dialogue is as follows:

[Savedra and Ashlin kiss]

“I don’t like girls,” Savedra whispered when she could breathe again […description of her arousal…]

Ashlin’s laugh caught in her throat. “Nor do I. But I like you.” (p230)

That Savedra introduces that phrase, and that Ashlin is replying to it and making the point that despite not normally liking “girls” each likes the other, to me has a completely different implication from that drawn by Morgan; Ashlin is here reinforcing the idea of Savedra as female, saying that she is the exception to a general heterosexuality, just as Ashlin is Savedra’s exception. This is a problematic model of sexuality for other reasons, but as far as gender presentation goes, this dialogue seems to me to be actively reinforcing that Savedra is a woman; that she still has, and is able to enjoy using, her penis (“traitourous flesh”) absolutely does not undermine her trans identity, since there are trans women out there who are in that situation.

The second passage quoted by Morgan is this, with Morgan’s discussion:

She offers Savedra the same deal: switch sides, and she can have a real female body to inhabit. Isn’t that what she has always wanted? Ginevra would have to die, but that’s a small price, right? It is an horrific suggestion, and one that Savedra declines, but not quite for the obvious reason.

Madness, Savedra would call it. Abomination. Temptation.

Nikos had always said he loved her, not the flesh she wore. Did he really mean that?

“No,” she said at last. “I can’t”(p425)

So yes, there are moral considerations, but the main reason Savedra says no is that being given the choice has forced her to confront the “reality” of her relationship with Nikos. For all her fine fantasies, she is forced to admit that when it comes down to it Nikos wants her as she is, not as she imagines herself. If she had a female body, Nikos would not love her anymore.

Again, I think Morgan is interpreting the passage in a counterintuitive way. The first, gut reaction Savedra has to the suggestion is indeed that it is horrific; that she then also thinks about it in the context of her relationship doesn’t undermine or remove that first reaction. Furthermore, her statement that Nikos loves her, not the flesh she is in, seems to me to be the exact opposite of the statement Morgan believes it to be; Savedra is Savedra, and it is her soul (The Bone Palace is very openly dualistic) Nikos loves, her female soul, no matter what her body appears to be. She does not reject the offer because Nikos only loves her for her male body, but because Nikos loves her whatever body she is in, so accepting the horrific offer wouldn’t actually have any benefit for her.

In the end, Morgan’s analysis of the gender politics of The Bone Palace strike me as incredibly wrongheaded; whereas she believes Downum to have written an anti-trans text on the level of Russ’ Female Man, it reads to me as a very trans-positive novel with an excellent, honest, empathetic and thoughtful depiction of trans life.
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The Courier’s New Bicycle by Kim Westwood

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Salisbury Forth is a courier of contraband in the alleyways of inner Melbourne, a city of fuel rationing, rolling power outages and curfews.

It’s a stressful life, post-pandemic. A vaccine dispensed Australia-wide is causing mass-infertility, and the government has banned all remedies except prayer.

Vigilantes prowl for transgressors while the pious gather like moths under the streetlights at dusk. Then someone starts trading tainted hormones on the boss’s patch. Salisbury must find whoever is trying to destroy the business before everything goes belly up…
~~~~~
For a novel that made the Tiptree Honour List and won an Aurealis and a Ditmar Award, and that is cited in every discussion of queer science fiction, The Courier’s New Bicycle is hard to find in print; in the end, I resorted to asking Alisa Krasnostein to lay hands on a copy and bring it with her to LonCon 3 – which I am grateful to her for doing!

The Courier’s New Bicycle is not only cited in every discussion of queer speculative fiction out there, it deserves to be, and in any discussion of near-future or postapocalyptic science fiction too; the world posited by Westwood is terrifying, but also terrifyingly plausible. In the wake of environmental catastrophe and pandemic, fertility has dropped, green vehicles are not just the norm but the law, and a Christian fundamentalist government with very strict ideas of morality (cisgendered male and female are the only acceptable genders, hetero the only acceptable sexuality) rules Australia. Westwood paints this, and its consequences, vividly and in strong forceful strokes; the images of scooters and beetle-wing-quiet cars crawling the streets of Melbourne, bicycles whipping past them and ruling the road; fanatics gathered in prayer-shawls beating up “deviants” – these are described with an amazing vividness and immediacy.

The role of the fanatics is in part driven by the degree to which this is a book peopled by “deviants”. Salisbury Forth, Sal, is intersexed; various of Sal’s friends are homo- or bisexual, a number are trans, and her closest friend is also her boss, a producer and provider of fertility hormones. Every character has their own interests, voices, motivations, and characterisations; that The Courier’s New Bicycle manages to be sympathetic to some of the grimmer villains of the piece while still being absolutely clear that they are villains is impressive, and fantastically well done. Westwood’s ability to give each character interiority despite the book being wholly from Sal’s perspective is really a beautiful thing to see.

The Courier’s New Bicycle is a queer book through and through, treating queerness as the norm and repression/suppression of that as a deviation form it; but this is done subtly and neatly, worked in throughout the book as the various characters interact. It’s certainly subtler than the animal rights message Westwood wants to put across, which is very direct indeed, but also effective; it’s not a character giving a Goodland/Rand style diatribe, but descriptions of abuses of animals for economic purposes that drive this element.

Finally, the plot; The Courier’s New Bicycle could be accused of falling into tropes here, with elements of cyberpunk and the mafia novel both involved, but the way Westwood brings it off the page and into a kinetic, powerful life of its own puts it a cut above most novels of either type. The various threads which tie in, the refusal of Westwood to ignore the role of the personal in economic and political relationships and dealings, the fast pace and brilliantly done laying of clues, all combine to be a stunningly good plot; it doesn’t tread new ground per se, but once the layers of the queerness and the setting are noted, it stands above most books around it.

Westwood’s second novel is hard to find. But, with awards aplenty, accolades abounding, and absolutely wonderful writing, The Courier’s New Bicycle really rewards the hunt!

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